How do you work? (Part 1)

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My Approach

Slow and Steady

I am a “rational artist”: I must know why I do what I do, and so I have formulated a clear artistic vision. Analytical by nature, making sense of my artistic motivations and processes is not only illuminating but gratifying. A big part of my work involves dissecting it, and my approach to fulfilling it can best be described as methodical.

For this reason, I tend to work slowly, thoroughly exploring every idea for a work (or part of a work) that comes to mind. The moment of inspiration is only the beginning to me. The joy of being an artist lies in the struggle between the inception and completion of the work: in the perfection of its concept, content and execution.

I think of an artwork as a microcosm of an artist’s life, containing the sum total of his experience up until the moment of its conception. My work then is the process of distilling into an artwork the content of my heart and mind, of concretising in a musical or poetic composition what I felt and thought at the moment of inspiration.

Realising a Response

My theme is the wonder of nature, especially as seen in pastoral beauty—at once my muse and subject. I may encounter a wild flower, or a creature, or survey a landscape from which I cannot withdraw my gaze, that will evoke an impression: a feeling that seems to require music or poetry to express. This is how a piece begins.

It appears first as an emotional reaction that transforms into a thought, which in turn becomes a poetic line or verse, or a musical idea. What follows for both music and poetry are fundamentally the same: I begin with a rough idea which I methodically develop, producing many variations until I find those that best fulfil my intentions.

Devils and Details

At any given time, I work on a specific piece in a project—a poem or a musical composition—rather than many at once. I must immerse myself wholly in the work, without distraction, that I may extract from it whatever artistic potential it possesses; I do not move on from a piece until there is nothing more I can do to improve it.

The least interesting part of the process to me is the “gear”: I only require that it helps and not hinder my work, and that it be of sufficient quality for my purposes. My tools, therefore, are few, simple and convenient: for music, I use a digital audio workstation and session musicians, and for poetry, a physical and digital notebook.

Why “Forgotten Fields”?

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“Fields”

I grew up in the Overberg region of the Western Cape province of South Africa. There are farms of every description in every direction. In the part where I was raised (and where I live now), they are chiefly for the cultivation of wheat and barley, and the rearing of sheep. It is a region with endless hills, divided here and there by modest rivers, and presided over by low mountain ranges. I spent the whole of my childhood there—here—and it was—and is—heaven on earth.

It was only when I left for college that I fully experienced city living. It was not palatable to me then (though I did my best to adjust to it), nor is it to me now (so I do my best to avoid it). Whilst for many years, I lived in a large town beyond the Hottentots Holland Mountains—the Overberg region lies beyond or “over” these mountains or berge (Afrikaans)1—I always sought accommodation on the edges of the town, even though the town itself was not densely populated.

Nonetheless, I would visit my family home in the countryside as often as I could, as a means of escape. Nearly every weekend, I would make my way “over the berg” and immerse myself in the loveliness of pastoral life. When I could bear being separated from it no longer, I started thinking about returning permanently. I distinctly remember the moment I made the decision to do so: alone upon a hill, listening to the sound of a distant flock. A few months later, I moved back.

“Forgotten”

But eventually, familiarity did its work, and with time, I grew accustomed to the landscape and its creatures. They were still a comfort, but I was unable to recognise their true wonder. Much of this I now ascribe to a sense of alienation that has plagued me all my life, born of a deep sense of abandonment and disconnection that I felt in childhood. This perception came to a head at age six when I was sent to what for brevity’s sake, I shall call boarding school.

I would not have felt the periodic separation from my family quite so keenly had I earlier in life known that natural bond (and its security) with my parents. Sadly, the failings of my father and the pressures upon my mother meant that I was raised as an infant by my grandmother and nursemaids. Consequently, being sent away for most of my school life was overall a negative experience which produced in me a tendency to detach from people—and, I now realise, places.

That I would drift away from the very countryside I so loved was perhaps inevitable. It was a concerted effort on my part to overcome my inner struggles that led me to reconnect with it once again. This project was born at the beginning of that process. I soon found the more progress I made psychologically, the more I reconnected with the rural wonder about me. The Zephyr and the Swallow was my first, lucid response to it. “Forgotten Fields” then describes this journey.

Footnotes

  1. Berge is Afrikaans for “mountains”; the singular is berg. The former is pronounced “beh-R-guh” with the “eh” (and “g”) in “get” and a trilled “R”; the latter, “beh-R-CH” with a trilled “R” and “CH” the guttural “kccch” sound in “loch”, that is, not the “ck” in “lock”.

Why traditional poetry?

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Beginnings

My love for traditional poetry began early in life. I ascribe it wholly to the influence of my mother whose love for Afrikaans poetry inspired in me the same. Her frequent recitation of lines from the great Afrikaans poets demonstrated to me the value of the art form. Even so, I came late to composing poetry myself, writing my first verses only in my early twenties. They were all lyrical ballads inspired by songwriters I admired at the time—especially Bob Dylan and Jim Steinman whose respective themes and styles captured my imagination.

When I later took up songwriting, my interest in poetry found expression in lyrics, and for the next decade, this was the sum of my poetic pursuits. Then in my mid-thirties, I started taking an interest in poetry proper once more, and in 2012 composed “Autumn” (an ode to the season) and another poem (since lost) the title of which I vaguely recall as “A Day by the Sea” (a recollection of love). These were the only poems I wrote during that period, but “Autumn” was significant because it was the earliest incarnation of what I am doing now.

Becoming a poet

In 2016, I had the idea to compose a verse as “lyrics” for the track “Silently You Sail” on Airship. Soon thereafter, I wrote a couplet for The Zephyr and the Swallow, followed by a ballad for the eponymous album Forgotten Fields. At the same time, I slowly began to rediscover my rural surroundings: the sights and sounds, landscapes and creatures. Though I had been in the midst of them (the “fields”), familiarity had rendered them all but invisible to me (“forgotten”), and I longed to reconnect with the pastoral world about me.

Not one to do anything halfheartedly, I immersed myself in the agrarian and unspoilt beauty of the Overberg region where I live in the Western Cape of South Africa; and as it revealed itself to me anew, poetry became my inevitable response. I began drafting rough poetic sketches—at first sporadically, then ever more frequently, until at last, it was all I wished to do—and it soon became clear a collection was in the making. By early 2018, after much deliberation and reservation, I was ready to assume the self-ascribed title of Poet.

Traditional poetry

I embraced the art form, eager to explore the themes of Forgotten Fields, thitherto undertaken primarily through experimental music, in its literary antithesis: traditional poetry. The experience has been engrossing. From an artistic perspective, traditional poetry is the inverse of experimental music, introducing a complementary aspect to my process; for where in experimental music I may bend, break and invent rules, in traditional poetry I must obey, uphold and defend them, drawing from me creative ingenuity of a different kind.

Conventions introduce challenges and opportunities of their own, resulting in work with a character impossible to create at the avant-garde extreme of the gamut. Traditional poetry may now be out of fashion (hence my self-publishing the collection upon completion), but it lends itself perfectly to what I wish to express. My poetry celebrates a forgotten world where Simplicity, Innocence and Joy awaits; where Reverence and Wonder have meaning; where swallows in the heavens inspire awe and ripples in the grass contemplation.

Why experimental music?

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What it means to me

“Experimental music” is a somewhat nebulous term, but I think of it as a descriptor for musical exploration in whatever genre, or combination of genres, one happens to do so. To me, it is the liberty to invent new ways of expressing a theme in a composition. Whether I use elements from classical music, drone or vocals, my primary goal is to put them at the service of a concept. Of course, every composition in any genre is an experiment of some sort, but there are times when the outcome is not readily classifiable.

My journey into the genre

Some of my earliest musical ideas were rudimentary experiments, before I knew what “experimental music” was. I would write minimal pieces for the piano and combine them with poetry and field recording—in essence, the raw beginnings of what I am doing now. Before the advent of the Internet, it never occurred to me that others may be doing the same. It was decades before I would return to this approach—having long explored acoustic music—this time, aided by the digital democratisation of music production.

Forgotten Fields

My interest in experimental music was revived with the discovery of post-rock and the genres with which it was often confused—like shoegaze, dream pop, ambient and electronic music. By the time I heard “Container Ships” by Loscil from Sketches from New Brighton four years after its release, I was ready to compose experimental music again. That album was the catalyst for my first release, Airship, a work that laid the foundation for what Forgotten Fields ultimately became: the consolidation of my artistic ideas.

Why do you do what you do?

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Living in the Overberg, surrounded by gentle farmland, serene mountain ranges and restoring silences, my work is a response to it all. In my music and poetry, I seek to express what in sacred moments among the hills wells up within me: awe, wonder and joy! My work is an inevitability—an act of adoration.

A still from the “Verse One” music video.

Artist Questions

ARTIST QUESTIONS

This is the first of a series in which I shall explore my thoughts on art-related questions, everything from “What is your favourite artwork?” to “Should art be funded?” Where I have already established a view, my answers shall be brief, but where I am yet undecided, they shall be exploratory. Analytical by nature, I am going to enjoy this tremendously.

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Who are you and what do you do?

I am a musician and poet from the Western Cape of South Africa. I compose idylls—reflections on fleeting images of rural beauty—in melody and verse, the latter often inspiring the former. My most recent musical release was a self-titled album in the experimental genre, and I am currently working on a collection of traditional poetry inspired by my rural surroundings.